John Addington Symonds.

The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti online

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Vasari says: "His powers of imagination were such, that he was
frequently compelled to abandon his purpose, because he could not
express by the hand those grand and sublime ideas which he had
conceived in his mind; nay, he has spoiled and destroyed many works
for this cause; and I know, too, that some short time before his death
he burnt a large number of his designs, sketches, and cartoons, that
none might see the labours he had endured, and the trials to which he
had subjected his spirit, in his resolve not to fall short of
perfection. I have myself secured some drawings by his hand, which
were found in Florence, and are now in my book of designs, and these,
although they give evidence of his great genius, yet prove also that
the hammer of Vulcan was necessary to bring Minerva from the head of
Jupiter. He would construct an ideal shape out of nine, ten and even
twelve different heads, for no other purpose than to obtain a certain
grace of harmony and composition which is not to be found in the
natural form, and would say that the artist must have his measuring
tools, not in the hand, but in the eye, because the hands do but
operate, it is the eye that judges; he pursued the same idea in
architecture also." Condivi adds some information regarding his
extraordinary fecundity and variety of invention: "He was gifted with
a most tenacious memory, the power of which was such that, though he
painted so many thousands of figures, as any one can see, he never
made one exactly like another or posed in the same attitude. Indeed, I
have heard him say that he never draws a line without remembering
whether he has drawn it before; erasing any repetition, when the
design was meant to be exposed to public view. His force of
imagination is also most extraordinary. This has been the chief reason
why he was never quite satisfied with his own work, and always
depreciated its quality, esteeming that his hand failed to attain the
idea which he had formed within his brain."


The four greatest draughtsmen of this epoch were Lionardo da Vinci,
Michelangelo, Raffaello, and Andrea del Sarto. They are not to be
reckoned as equals; for Lionardo and Michelangelo outstrip the other
two almost as much as these surpass all lesser craftsmen. Each of the
four men expressed his own peculiar vision of the world with pen, or
chalk, or metal point, finding the unique inevitable line, the exact
touch and quality of stroke, which should present at once a lively
transcript from real Nature, and a revelation of the artist's
particular way of feeling Nature. In Lionardo it is a line of subtlety
and infinite suggestiveness; in Michelangelo it compels attention, and
forcibly defines the essence of the object; in Raffaello it carries
melody, the charm of an unerring rhythm; in Andrea it seems to call
for tone, colour, atmosphere, and makes their presence felt. Raffaello
was often faulty: even in the wonderful pen-drawing of two nudes he
sent to Albrecht Dürer as a sample of his skill, we blame the knees
and ankles of his models. Lionardo was sometimes wilful, whimsical,
seduced by dreamland, like a god born amateur. Andrea allowed his
facility to lead him into languor, and lacked passion. Michelangelo's
work shows none of these shortcomings; it is always technically
faultness, instinct with passion, supereminent in force. But we crave
more of grace, of sensuous delight, of sweetness, than he chose, or
perhaps was able, to communicate. We should welcome a little more of
human weakness if he gave a little more of divine suavity.

Michelangelo's style of design is that of a sculptor, Andrea's of a
colourist, Lionardo's of a curious student, Raffaello's of a musician
and improvisatore. These distinctions are not merely fanciful, nor
based on what we know about the men in their careers. We feel similar
distinctions in the case of all great draughtsmen. Titian's
chalk-studies, Fra Bartolommeo's, so singularly akin to Andrea del
Sarto's, Giorgione's pen-and-ink sketch for a Lucretia, are seen at
once by their richness and blurred outlines to be the work of
colourists. Signorelli's transcripts from the nude, remarkably similar
to those of Michelangelo, reveal a sculptor rather than a painter.
Botticelli, with all his Florentine precision, shows that, like
Lionardo, he was a seeker and a visionary in his anxious feeling after
curve and attitude. Mantegna seems to be graving steel or cutting into
marble. It is easy to apply this analysis in succession to any
draughtsman who has style. To do so would, however, be superfluous: we
should only be enforcing what is a truism to all intelligent students
of art - namely, that each individual stamps his own specific quality
upon his handiwork; reveals even in the neutral region of design his
innate preference for colour or pure form as a channel of expression;
betrays the predominance of mental energy or sensuous charm, of
scientific curiosity or plastic force, of passion or of tenderness,
which controls his nature. This inevitable and unconscious revelation
of the man in art-work strikes us as being singularly modern. We do
not apprehend it to at all the same extent in the sculpture of the
ancients, whether it be that our sympathies are too remote from Greek
and Roman ways of feeling, or whether the ancients really conceived
art more collectively in masses, less individually as persons.

No master exhibits this peculiarly modern quality more decisively than
Michelangelo, and nowhere is the personality of his genius, what marks
him off and separates him from all fellow-men, displayed with fuller
emphasis than in his drawings. To use the words of a penetrative
critic, from whom it is a pleasure to quote: "The thing about
Michelangelo is this; he is not, so to say, at the head of a class,
but he stands apart by himself: he is not possessed of a skill which
renders him unapproached or unapproachable; but rather, he is of so
unique an order, that no other artist whatever seems to suggest
comparison with him." Mr. Selwyn Image goes on to define in what a
true sense the words "creator" and "creative" may be applied to him:
how the shows and appearances of the world were for him but
hieroglyphs of underlying ideas, with which his soul was familiar, and
from which he worked again outward; "his learning and skill in the
arts supplying to his hand such large and adequate symbols of them as
are otherwise beyond attainment." This, in a very difficult and
impalpable region of aesthetic criticism, is finely said, and accords
with Michelangelo's own utterances upon art and beauty in his poems.
Dwelling like a star apart, communing with the eternal ideas, the
permanent relations of the universe, uttering his inmost thoughts
about these mysteries through the vehicles of science and of art, for
which he was so singularly gifted, Michelangelo, in no loose or
trivial sense of that phrase, proved himself to be a creator. He
introduces us to a world seen by no eyes except his own, compels us to
become familiar with forms unapprehended by our senses, accustoms us
to breathe a rarer and more fiery atmosphere than we were born into.

The vehicles used by Michelangelo in his designs were mostly pen and
chalk. He employed both a sharp-nibbed pen of some kind, and a broad
flexible reed, according to the exigencies of his subject or the
temper of his mood. The chalk was either red or black, the former
being softer than the latter. I cannot remember any instances of those
chiaroscuro washes which Raffaello handled in so masterly a manner,
although Michelangelo frequently combined bistre shading with pen
outlines. In like manner he does not seem to have favoured the metal
point upon prepared paper, with which Lionardo produced unrivalled
masterpieces. Some drawings, where the yellow outline bites into a
parchment paper, blistering at the edges, suggest a rusty metal in the
instrument. We must remember, however, that the inks of that period
were frequently corrosive, as is proved by the state of many documents
now made illegible through the gradual attrition of the paper by
mineral acids. It is also not impossible that artists may have already
invented what we call steel pens. Sarpi, in the seventeenth century,
thanks a correspondent for the gift of one of these mechanical
devices. Speaking broadly, the reed and the quill, red and black
chalk, or _matita,_ were the vehicles of Michelangelo's expression as
a draughtsman. I have seen very few examples of studies heightened
with white chalk, and none produced in the fine Florentine style of
Ghirlandajo by white chalk alone upon a dead-brown surface. In this
matter it is needful to speak with diffidence; for the sketches of our
master are so widely scattered that few students can have examined the
whole of them; and photographic reproductions, however admirable in
their fidelity to outline, do not always give decisive evidence
regarding the materials employed.

One thing seems manifest. Michelangelo avoided those mixed methods
with which Lionardo, the magician, wrought wonders. He preferred an
instrument which could be freely, broadly handled, inscribing form in
strong plain strokes upon the candid paper. The result attained,
whether wrought by bold lines, or subtly hatched, or finished with the
utmost delicacy of modulated shading, has always been traced out
conscientiously and firmly, with one pointed stylus (pen, chalk, or
matita), chosen for the purpose. As I have said, it is the work of a
sculptor, accustomed to wield chisel and mallet upon marble, rather
than that of a painter, trained to secure effects by shadows and

It is possible, I think, to define, at least with some approximation
to precision, Michelangelo's employment of his favourite vehicles for
several purposes and at different periods of his life. A broad-nibbed
pen was used almost invariably in making architectural designs of
cornices, pilasters, windows, also in plans for military engineering.
Sketches of tombs and edifices, intended to be shown to patrons, were
partly finished with the pen; and here we find a subordinate and very
limited use of the brush in shading. Such performances may be regarded
as products of the workshop rather than as examples of the artist's
mastery. The style of them is often conventional, suggesting the
intrusion of a pupil or the deliberate adoption of an office
mannerism. The pen plays a foremost part in all the greatest and most
genial creations of his fancy when it worked energetically in
preparation for sculpture or for fresco. The Louvre is rich in
masterpieces of this kind - the fiery study of a David; the heroic
figures of two male nudes, hatched into stubborn salience like pieces
of carved wood; the broad conception of the Madonna at S. Lorenzo in
her magnificent repose and passionate cascade of fallen draperies; the
repulsive but superabundantly powerful profile of a goat-like faun.
These, and the stupendous studies of the Albertina Collection at
Vienna, including the supine man with thorax violently raised, are
worked with careful hatchings, stroke upon stroke, effecting a
suggestion of plastic roundness. But we discover quite a different use
of the pen in some large simple outlines of seated female figures at
the Louvre; in thick, almost muddy, studies at Vienna, where the form
emerges out of oft-repeated sodden blotches; in the grim light and
shade, the rapid suggestiveness of the dissection scene at Oxford. The
pen in the hand of Michelangelo was the tool by means of which he
realised his most trenchant conceptions and his most picturesque
impressions. In youth and early manhood, when his genius was still
vehement, it seems to have been his favourite vehicle.

The use of chalk grew upon him in later life, possibly because he
trusted more to his memory now, and loved the dreamier softer medium
for uttering his fancies. Black chalk was employed for rapid notes of
composition, and also for the more elaborate productions of his
pencil. To this material we owe the head of Horror which he gave to
Gherardo Perini (in the Uffizi), the Phaethon, the Tityos, the
Ganymede he gave to Tommaso Cavalieri (at Windsor). It is impossible
to describe the refinements of modulated shading and the precision of
predetermined outlines by means of which these incomparable drawings
have been produced. They seem to melt and to escape inspection, yet
they remain fixed on the memory as firmly as forms in carven basalt.

The whole series of designs for Christ's Crucifixion and Deposition
from the Cross are executed in chalk, sometimes black, but mostly red.
It is manifest, upon examination, that they are not studies from the
model, but thoughts evoked and shadowed forth on paper. Their
perplexing multiplicity and subtle variety - as though a mighty
improvisatore were preluding again and yet again upon the clavichord
to find his theme, abandoning the search, renewing it, altering the
key, changing the accent - prove that this continued seeking with the
crayon after form and composition was carried on in solitude and
abstract moments. Incomplete as the designs may be, they reveal
Michelangelo's loftiest dreams and purest visions. The nervous energy,
the passionate grip upon the subject, shown in the pen-drawings, are
absent here. These qualities are replaced by meditation and an air of
rapt devotion. The drawings for the Passion might be called the
prayers and pious thoughts of the stern master.

Red chalk he used for some of his most brilliant conceptions. It is
not necessary to dwell upon the bending woman's head at Oxford, or the
torso of the lance-bearer at Vienna. Let us confine our attention to
what is perhaps the most pleasing and most perfect of all
Michelangelo's designs - the "Bersaglio," or the "Arcieri," in the
Queen's collection at Windsor.

It is a group of eleven naked men and one woman, fiercely footing the
air, and driving shafts with all their might to pierce a classical
terminal figure, whose face, like that of Pallas, and broad breast are
guarded by a spreading shield. The draughtsman has indicated only one
bow, bent with fury by an old man in the background. Yet all the
actions proper to archery are suggested by the violent gestures and
strained sinews of the crowd. At the foot of the terminal statue,
Cupid lies asleep upon his wings, with idle bow and quiver. Two little
genii of love, in the background, are lighting up a fire, puffing its
flames, as though to drive the archers onward. Energy and ardour,
impetuous movement and passionate desire, could not be expressed with
greater force, nor the tyranny of some blind impulse be more
imaginatively felt. The allegory seems to imply that happiness is not
to be attained, as human beings mostly strive to seize it, by the
fierce force of the carnal passions. It is the contrast between
celestial love asleep in lustful souls, and vulgar love inflaming
tyrannous appetites: -

_The one love soars, the other downward tends;
The soul lights this, while that the senses stir,
And still lust's arrow at base quarry flies._

This magnificent design was engraved during Buonarroti's lifetime, or
shortly afterwards, by Niccolò Beatrizet. Some follower of Raffaello
used the print for a fresco in the Palazzo Borghese at Rome. It forms
one of the series in which Raffaello's marriage of Alexander and
Roxana is painted. This has led some critics to ascribe the drawing
itself to the Urbinate. Indeed, at first sight, one might almost
conjecture that the original chalk study was a genuine work of
Raffaello, aiming at rivalry with Michelangelo's manner. The calm
beauty of the statue's classic profile, the refinement of all the
faces, the exquisite delicacy of the adolescent forms, and the
dominant veiling of strength with grace, are not precisely
Michelangelesque. The technical execution of the design, however,
makes its attribution certain. Well as Raffaello could draw, he could
not draw like this. He was incapable of rounding and modelling the
nude with those soft stipplings and granulated shadings which bring
the whole surface out like that of a bas-relief in polished marble.
His own drawing for Alexander and Roxana, in red chalk, and therefore
an excellent subject for comparison with the Arcieri, is hatched all
over in straight lines; a method adopted by Michelangelo when working
with the pen, but, so far as I am aware, never, or very rarely, used
when he was handling chalk. The style of this design and its exquisite
workmanship correspond exactly with the finish of the Cavalieri series
at Windsor. The paper, moreover, is indorsed in Michelangelo's
handwriting with a memorandum bearing the date April 12, 1530. We have
then in this masterpiece of draughtsmanship an example, not of
Raffaello in a Michelangelising mood, but of Michelangelo for once
condescending to surpass Raffaello on his own ground of loveliness and
rhythmic grace.



Julius died upon the 21st of February 1513. "A prince," says
Guicciardini, "of inestimable courage and tenacity, but headlong, and
so extravagant in the schemes he formed, that his own prudence and
moderation had less to do with shielding him from ruin than the
discord of sovereigns and the circumstances of the times in Europe:
worthy, in all truth, of the highest glory had he been a secular
potentate, or if the pains and anxious thought he employed in
augmenting the temporal greatness of the Church by war had been
devoted to her spiritual welfare in the arts of peace."

Italy rejoiced when Giovanni de' Medici was selected to succeed him,
with the title of Leo X. "Venus ruled in Rome with Alexander, Mars
with Julius, now Pallas enters on her reign with Leo." Such was the
tenor of the epigrams which greeted Leo upon his triumphal progress to
the Lateran. It was felt that a Pope of the house of Medici would be a
patron of arts and letters, and it was hoped that the son of Lorenzo
the Magnificent might restore the equilibrium of power in Italy. Leo
X. has enjoyed a greater fame than he deserved. Extolled as an
Augustus in his lifetime, he left his name to what is called the
golden age of Italian culture. Yet he cannot be said to have raised
any first-rate men of genius, or to have exercised a very wise
patronage over those whom Julius brought forward. Michelangelo and
Raffaello were in the full swing of work when Leo claimed their
services. We shall see how he hampered the rare gifts of the former by
employing him on uncongenial labours; and it was no great merit to
give a free rein to the inexhaustible energy of Raffaello. The project
of a new S. Peter's belonged to Julius. Leo only continued the scheme,
using such assistants as the times provided after Bramante's death in
1514. Julius instinctively selected men of soaring and audacious
genius, who were capable of planning on a colossal scale. Leo
delighted in the society of clever people, poetasters, petty scholars,
lutists, and buffoons. Rome owes no monumental work to his inventive
brain, and literature no masterpiece to his discrimination. Ariosto,
the most brilliant poet of the Renaissance, returned in disappointment
from the Vatican. "When I went to Rome and kissed the foot of Leo,"
writes the ironical satirist, "he bent down from the holy chair, and
took my hand and saluted me on both cheeks. Besides, he made me free
of half the stamp-dues I was bound to pay; and then, breast full of
hope, but smirched with mud, I retired and took my supper at the Ram."

The words which Leo is reported to have spoken to his brother Giuliano
when he heard the news of his election, express the character of the
man and mark the difference between his ambition and that of Julius.
"Let us enjoy the Papacy, since God has given it us." To enjoy life,
to squander the treasures of the Church on amusements, to feed a
rabble of flatterers, to contract enormous debts, and to disturb the
peace of Italy, not for some vast scheme of ecclesiastical
aggrandisement, but in order to place the princes of his family on
thrones, that was Leo's conception of the Papal privileges and duties.
The portraits of the two Popes, both from the hand of Raffaello, are
eminently characteristic. Julius, bent, white-haired, and emaciated,
has the nervous glance of a passionate and energetic temperament. Leo,
heavy-jawed, dull-eyed, with thick lips and a brawny jowl, betrays the
coarser fibre of a sensualist.


We have seen already that Julius, before his death, provided for his
monument being carried out upon a reduced scale. Michelangelo entered
into a new contract with the executors, undertaking to finish the work
within the space of seven years from the date of the deed, May 6,
1513. He received in several payments, during that year and the years
1514, 1515, 1516, the total sum of 6100 golden ducats. This proves
that he must have pushed the various operations connected with the
tomb vigorously forward, employing numerous workpeople, and ordering
supplies of marble. In fact, the greater part of what remains to us of
the unfinished monument may be ascribed to this period of
comparatively uninterrupted labour. Michelangelo had his workshop in
the Macello de' Corvi, but we know very little about the details of
his life there. His correspondence happens to be singularly scanty
between the years 1513 and 1516. One letter, however, written in May
1518, to the Capitano of Cortona throws a ray of light upon this
barren tract of time, and introduces an artist of eminence, whose
intellectual affinity to Michelangelo will always remain a matter of
interest. "While I was at Rome, in the first year of Pope Leo, there
came the Master Luca Signorelli of Cortona, painter. I met him one day
near Monte Giordano, and he told me that he was come to beg something
from the Pope, I forget what: he had run the risk of losing life and
limb for his devotion to the house of Medici, and now it seemed they
did not recognise him: and so forth, saying many things I have
forgotten. After these discourses, he asked me for forty giulios [a
coin equal in value to the more modern paolo, and worth perhaps eight
shillings of present money], and told me where to send them to, at the
house of a shoemaker, his lodgings. I not having the money about me,
promised to send it, and did so by the hand of a young man in my
service, called Silvio, who is still alive and in Rome, I believe.
After the lapse of some days, perhaps because his business with the
Pope had failed, Messer Luca came to my house in the Macello de'
Corvi, the same where I live now, and found me working on a marble
statue, four cubits in height, which has the hands bound behind the
back, and bewailed himself with me, and begged another forty, saying
that he wanted to leave Rome. I went up to my bedroom, and brought the
money down in the presence of a Bolognese maid I kept, and I think the
Silvio above mentioned was also there. When Luca got the cash, he went
away, and I have never seen him since; but I remember complaining to
him, because I was out of health and could not work, and he said:
'Have no fear, for the angels from heaven will come to take you in
their arms and aid you.'" This is in several ways an interesting
document. It brings vividly before our eyes magnificent expensive
Signorelli and his meanly living comrade, each of them mighty masters
of a terrible and noble style, passionate lovers of the nude, devoted
to masculine types of beauty, but widely and profoundly severed by
differences in their personal tastes and habits. It also gives us a
glimpse into Michelangelo's workshop at the moment when he was
blocking out one of the bound Captives at the Louvre. It seems from
what follows in the letter that Michelangelo had attempted to recover
the money through his brother Buonarroto, but that Signorelli refused
to acknowledge his debt. The Capitano wrote that he was sure it had
been discharged. "That," adds Michelangelo, "is the same as calling me
the biggest blackguard; and so I should be, if I wanted to get back
what had been already paid. But let your Lordship think what you like
about it, I am bound to get the money, and so I swear." The remainder
of the autograph is torn and illegible; it seems to wind up with a

The records of this period are so scanty that every detail acquires a
certain importance for Michelangelo's biographer. By a deed executed
on the 14th of June 1514, we find that he contracted to make a figure
of Christ in marble, "life-sized, naked, erect, with a cross in his
arms, and in such attitude as shall seem best to Michelangelo." The
persons who ordered the statue were Bernardo Cencio (a Canon of S.

Online LibraryJohn Addington SymondsThe Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti → online text (page 16 of 45)